A favorite saying of my father’s is, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
In the case of TV shows, I suppose that’s true on multiple levels.
Clearly the television landscape has changed dramatically in the aughts. The era of reality TV ushered in a new world order for program development. The ubiquity of cable and satellite scattered audiences across hundreds of channels — the Golden Age of Television was proclaimed.
I’m not saying these developments are negative, nor am I declaring them positive. This is no time for value judgments. But they have fundamentally altered television to a point that would be unrecognizable to someone who hopped in a time capsule in 1999.
One program format that fell by the wayside in the midst of all these tectonic shifts in the TV landscape is the miniseries. There’s no shortage of reasons why networks no longer develop them — they’re expensive, they tend to get poor ratings, and there’s no room for them in a hectic, overcrowded, hyper-competitive weekday race for ratings and buzz.
All of those reasons are valid, but I suppose I’m less interested in economic deterrents to developing miniseries and more interested in the creative possibilities of the form.
Miniseries are far more common in the U.K. than they are here, and recently they’ve seen a creative resurgence.
“Torchwood: Children of Earth”is a five-part miniseries that functioned as a pseudo-third season of the “Torchwood” program, which is about a government agency responsible for investigating otherworldly matters. The series was a creative resurgence for the series and a ratings success in the U.K. and here in America.
Obviously one success does not (necessarily) make another, but since critics and audiences alike frequently throw out complaints against TV shows for flabby storytelling and shoddy pacing, it makes sense to revisit the form as a possible cure for these ailments.
Giving series an expiration date is common in every part of the world except for America, where the goal for every show is to be “The Show That Never Ends.”
But what the networks apparently fail to realize is that viewers aren’t going to bite on every new and exciting concept that comes along, especially shows with complicated premise pilots.
The horrific ratings for FOX’s new “Lone Star,” which has a well-crafted and well-executed pilot, are a prime (and disappointing) example. Though the pilot was almost universally praised by critics across the country, nearly every critic worried about how the show would carry its story out through 13 episodes, or through 22. Or over two seasons. Or five.
Not to be prescriptive, but I have a suspicion that the miniseries format could help shows such as “Lone Star” find an audience. It might prove to viewers that there’s a plan for a satisfying conclusion and promise that taut storytelling and compelling performances will bring them to it, and I think ratings will prove the probable expense worthwhile.
All I want the networks to do is try to be a little more adventurous and creative in their efforts. After all, the ratings can’t get much worse than they’ve been thus far this season.
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